Part II of a three-part series
While Operation Tiger founding director Peter Jackson, memorialized in Part I of this series, meandered unexpectedly into his calling in wildlife conservation, John and Margaret Craighead, married working colleagues for more than 70 years, followed intense parental interests into theirs.
Twin brothers John and Frank Craighead, and their sister, children’s book author Jean Craighead George, learned their love of nature from their father, an entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stationed mostly in Washington D.C.
Beginning in 1934, John and Frank Craighead taught themselves falconry. Recalled Jordan Fisher Smith for The New Yorker, “Acquiring linemen’s spurs and ropes, they made daring climbs up trees and cliffs to procure raptor chicks and indulge a nascent passion for wildlife photography. They sold some of their pictures to magazines, bought a used Chevrolet, and, the year they graduated from high school, drove west on the first of a series of visits to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. On one of these trips, the Craigheads were reported to the authorities for keeping hawks in their car. The Grand Teton National Park ranger who went to investigate,” Willis Smith, “brought his daughter Margaret along.”
Willis Smith’s wife was the artist Clasa Koepp Smith, who shared his enthusiasm for the outdoors. Margaret, born in Yerrington, Nevada and raised in Ogden, Utah, had spent almost every summer of her life living in a tent at Yellowstone, and had already become an accomplished mountaineer and geological collector. She married John Craighead in 1946 and worked closely with him until his death.
John and Frank Craighead meanwhile broke into print together with a 1937 article for National Geographic about their adventures and misadventures with birds of prey. The Indian prince and ornithologist Raol Shri Dharmakumarsinhj (1917-1986) read the article and invited them to India to study falconry in 1940-1941.
“They learned about Indian ways of life,” recalls Wikipedia, “They also became deeply opposed to killing animals after participating in Indian hunts during their stay.”
Returning home just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941 brought the U.S. into World War II, the Craighead twins enlisted in the U.S. Navy, “where they were assigned to develop a survival-training program,” wrote Jordan Fisher Smith. “They island-hopped from Hawaii through the Marshalls and Marianas to the Philippines, surveying what the atolls of the Pacific could supply to keep a sailor or downed aviator alive. They organized instruction courses in Panama, South America, and the Caribbean, and published a survival manual that is still in print today.”
“After the war,” Jordan Fisher Smith continued, “John married Margaret, and with Frank and his new wife, Esther, they settled in two identical log cabins, side by side in the sagebrush of Jackson Hole. Each couple had two sons and a daughter, all born in pairs in the same years. The firstborn children entered the world within twenty-four hours of each other.”
After a 1950-1951 stint doing survival training for the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command, Frank and John Craighead pursued separate careers, Frank doing defense research, John teaching at the University of Montana.
Invented radio collars
They teamed up again, however, in 1959 to do the 12-year study of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park that is credited with saving the species from extinction. In connection with that work, the Craigheads in 1961 became apparently the first field biologists to use radio collars. They also contributed to the passage of the 1965 Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.
But “real trouble between the Craigheads and the park began,” Jordan Fisher Smith wrote, after two female backpackers were killed in August 1967 in separate grizzly bear attacks during one night at Glacier National Park, the first fatal animal attacks in the history of the park, founded in 1910.
“The Park Service blamed the attacks on backpackers who failed to store food and garbage out of reach of animals, and on the intentional feeding of grizzlies by seasonal hotel employees,” Jordan Fisher Smith continued. “But for seven decades, bears had been scavenging visitors’ food from campgrounds and feeding on refuse from garbage cans and park landfills.”
Yellowstone superintendent Jack Anderson and chief biologist Glen Cole cut off the bears’ access to garbage and human feeding, against the Craigheads’ advice that this might lead to more conflict with humans instead of less.
“As the debate escalated, Anderson ordered the demolition of the brothers’ Yellowstone lab, an old employee mess hall, and refused them other quarters,” Jordan Fisher Smith recounted. “The conflict between the park and the brothers was not only personal but philosophical. Looking back at nearly a century of wrongheaded tinkering with nature at Yellowstone—early rangers shot wolves and cougars, and the park still put out lightning fires—Cole formulated a new management policy. Its cardinal rule was non-interference with nature, and it came to be known as ‘natural regulation.’ In his view and Anderson’s, the Craigheads’ use of color-coded ear tags and radio collars on wild animals was as much of an affront to wildness as the landfills.”
By 1971, when Cole and Anderson refused to renew the Craigheads’ research permit, the Craigheads had “captured, marked, and studied two hundred and fifty-six Yellowstone grizzlies,” and had been partially vindicated in their criticisms of the Cole and Anderson policies.
“When the dumps closed, Yellowstone grizzlies began foraging in populated areas, just as the Craigheads predicted. A hundred and fifty-five were killed by humans between 1968 and 1971,” Jordan Fisher Smith noted.
Eventually, though, as the grizzlies who had become accustomed to human-provided food died out, and/or were killed, human/grizzly conflicts and the death toll among grizzlies diminished.
The Craigheads continued to do field studies of grizzlies and other Yellowstone region wildlife until 1978, when Frank Craighead’s wilderness cabin burned. Frank Craighead died at age 85 on October 21, 2001 in Jackson, Wyoming, best remembered for his 1979 book Track of the Grizzly.
The most famous writer in their family, however, was little sister Jean Carolyn Craighead George (1919–2012).
A reporter for The Washington Post early in her career, who for a time covered the White House, Jean Craighead George was from 1969 to 1982 a writer and editor at Readers Digest, but found her actual calling as author of more than one hundred books for children and young adults, mostly on nature themes, including My Side of the Mountain, a runner-up for the 1960 Newbery Medal, and Julie of the Wolves, which won the medal in 1972.